Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
The Chicago Tribune gave The Bends, which was on my employee pick wall for the duration of my time as employee and then assistant manager at a record store on Cape Cod, one star. Instead of linking to the archived review, here is the complete text:
Along with Beck's "Loser," Radiohead's smash single "Creep" made up a sort of low self-esteem hit parade for disaffected pop fans. Lacking that dubious appeal, there's little on the British group's second record to suggest they'll be more than one-hit wonders. Thom Yorke's ethereal vocals and woebegone melodies are tuneful enough, but too self-absorbed to be catchy. The sweeping, extravagant choruses and Seattle wanna-be guitar parts are similarly heavy-handed and excessive: the clumsy, unpleasant guitar scorch of "Bones" and "My Iron Lung" are particularly cringe-inducing. If the band had dispensed with the grandiose dramatic effects, songs like "The Bends" and "Black Star" could have been catchy little rockers. Instead, Radiohead's overwrought, pompous music makes them sound like alternative rock`s answer to the Moody Blues.
Apart from the not-stradamus prediction that the band would be a One Hit Wonder, much of the rest of this reviewers critique have followed the band through the last nearly thirty years of their highly successful rock career. Thom Yorke's voice is weird. They keep changing how they play their instruments. Their effects are too grandoise. They pick their lyrics out of a hat. Bjork did it better. REM did it better. Pink Floyd did it better. Ya da. Ya da. Ya da.
I've been on board with the band since ... not Day One ... but since I was a drunk teenager at a work party, rocking out to "Creep" with people I mistakenly thought were cooler than me. A year later, they'd be back to the Black Crowes and Dave Matthews Band (and I'd be with them for a while). In two years, though, we'd be completely split apart as they went full Grateful Dead / Phish / Ween, and I decided to stick with Pearl Jam / Radiohead / and U2. We shan't speak of our regrettable Jimmy Buffet concert. AHEM. We shan't.
Ok. Maybe eventually. But not now.
I love the art rock mystique of Radiohead. The Bends was one of the first reimagined albums I made. And when I started this project, I intended to present their discography right after Prince's. Alas, my Radiohead discography had suffered from sort of iPod malfunction. I had made a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame playlist for work, and instead of copying the selected songs to the playlist, it deleted them. Sure, I still had all the tracks on a backup harddrive, but I really loved the flow of the reimagined playlists I'd already made, and didn't really want to go to the effort of remaking them.
While putting together a Spacehog and a Soul Asylum reimagining, I noticed that, while my backup drive didn't have the individual tracks from my Radiohead discography, they had each album as one whole file, so I didn't need to restructure the albums, I just needed to set the starting and stopping point of each track and re-export them. And that's a breeze!
Unlike much of my reimaginings, there isn't Too Much combining of albums. There's some, but it's not as excessive as Prince's, REM's, or The Weeknd's. The Bends holds on to each track, but recontextualizes them around three tracks from Pablo Honey that I couldn't bear to lose. They are, in my opinion, the only three tracks from Pablo Honey worth listening to. And even one of the ones I saved is of dubious quality. Phase One of Radiohead was kind of a British wannabe-Nirvana or REM. But, unlike, say Bush, they grew. I don't think The Bends sounds in any way derivative of their contemporaries the way Pablo Honey did.
While this is no longer even my favorite Radiohead album (Team Ok Computer 4 Life), it's still the album that made me fall in love with the band. And I think it aged better than many of the other bands I grew up listening to.
Much like the way they structured their middle albums, this version of The Bends is a sonic journey. Songs rise out of each other, not at the radio fade out level, but as though this album was two complementary tracks. Relentless.
The album starts in a fairly Beatlesque fashion with a tinkling, talking, hint at classical parade music beginning. Then the driving guitars of The Bends kicks in. Where do we go from here? / The words are coming out all weird / Where are you now when I need you? seem like a good opening to Thom Yorke's writing as anything else from the album. Unlike some of the reimagined albums, which features dudes being creepy about women not being into them. Thom Yorke is pretty up front that he's the weirdo, and he's going to work on himself instead of trying to figure out anybody else.
Where are you now when I need you? repeats as a wind gathers beneath the vocals and gives way to Planet Telex, which switches the narrative point from first to second person, but is about being powerless in pretty much every situation. Everything is broken / Everyone is broken. The guitars swell into wave patterns as Yorke asks Why can't you forget?
The Gallagher Brothers (aka Oasis) totally hate Radiohead. Not, like, in their feud with Blur sort of way, more in a complete dismissal of Radiohead's talent. Which amuses me, because Anyone Can Play Guitar could have easily come off of Definitely Maybe. The guitars are fuzzier. And while the vocals are too high for either Gallagher brother, the weird nasal grind of I want to be Jim Morrison is totally in their wheelhouse. Except, obviously, they both wanted to be Lennon and McCartney. Like, Real Bad. Like, they are still Not Over It. Their continued belief that they're the best musicians of their generation was a pretty bad look in their twenties is a really gross condemnation of who they are now that they're in their fifties and are mostly remembered as The Band That Wrote One Of The Most Annoying Songs Of All Time ("Wonderwall").
There was a show during the early days of the cable TV station FX, where the future host of Survivor, and Mr. Nancy from American Gods talked about new music. It was a fantastic show. It's where I learned of bands like James, The Dust Brothers, and Daft Punk. And while I already knew about Radiohead, it's where I first saw the video for Fake Plastic Trees, and knew I had to own the album. It starts with acoustic guitar that, indeed, anyone can play, and expands the feeling of "I'm terrible at everything" to acknowledge "But everything around me is fake as hell, so why do I care so much?" which neither the song nor the album ever try and resolve.
The music seems like it's getting more upbeat with High And Dry but the vocals let you know that any attempt to appear happy means you're turning into something you are not. You are as much fake plastic as the trees from the last song. It's the kind of message 17 year old Adam could rock out to, even if the midtemponess doesn't leave much rocking space.
Bones is coiled and waiting to strike at the end of "High And Dry". It's got the echoey Monster / New Adventures In Hi-Fi guitar sound that REM adopted at the same time. But it allows itself to get louder than "What's The Frequency Kenneth", even burying Yorke's vocals in the chorus. I confess that it was years before I realized he was singing When you've got to feel it in your bones. I had no clue what the chorus was.
This album has been super heavy on despair. So they love me like I was their brother / they protect me / make me happy feels like things are going to go in a ... oh, it's not real it's just a (Nice Dream) that threatens to launch into a primal scream, but Yorke cuts off his vocals, and lets the guitars scream for him.
You do it to yourself you do / and that's what really hurts. Nobody on this album is ever blamed for Yorke's loneliness, anger, or sadness. You might think this song is him calling out someone else for martyrdom, but in the context of the album, he's clearly addressing himself in second person. Just was one of many songs that led the more vulturish members of the 1990s rock press to predict that Yorke would be another rock and roll suicide.
My Iron Lung ponders We're too young to fall asleep / Too cynical to speak / We are losing it, can't you tell? This is the end of the first of the two tracks, it's at the 2/3rd point as opposed to the halfway point, but Radiohead has always had a specific structural pattern that favors utilitarianism over tradition.
Stop Whispering is the second of the Pablo Honey songs. The production quality is noticabely poorer, but I love the basic chorus and how the guitars sounded before the band figured out how to divvy up the guitar parts so it sounded more symphonic and less Wall Of Sound. I couldn't listen to a whole album of songs like this, but hearing one placed in the midst of the superior The Bends tracks works for me. I also enjoy that the chorus is Stop whispering / Start shouting which is sort of the anti-Radiohead career trajectory. They definitely progress from shouting to whispering.
My go-to karaoke song of the late 90s / early 2000s is the final Pablo Honey song. Creep is another unrequited love song where Yorke acknowledges that he's the problem in the dynamic, and gets all sad about it. There have been some insanely good covers of this track on singing competition reality shows. Some explore it as a haunting ballad, some turn it into a screamo anthem. I like that this song works in many different forms. I also enjoy that every karaoke machine I ever looked at during the chorus had the lyrics as I'm a creep / I'm a widow. No, dude. I'm a weirdo. It's pretty obvious from the context of the song, even if it's in a British accent. Though putting the entire album in the perspective of Yorke recovering from a dead spouse does kinda work.
Unlike "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and "Stop Whispering", "Creep" is on-par, production-wise with The Bends, which makes it easy for it slide into Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was), the most ballady track on the album.
If there is a filler song on the album, I think it's Sulk. I still enjoy listening to the song, particularly the transition from chorus to guitar solo around the 2:30 mark. But I had no idea what any of the lyrics were for the first decade or so that I listened to the album. Perhaps longer. I like that it ends with You'll never change, because, again, I enjoy this album for its refusal to ever resolve its depression.
Blackstar comes right out there and tells you to blame your problems on technology, astrology, whatever you want that isn't another person. Every time they're reminded of the person they love, they have a panic attack, and they're searching for someone to blame for this feeling other than themself, so rather than blaming the person they can't have, they're going to list a bunch of possibilities that aren't other people with feelings.
The album closes with Street Spirit (Fade Out), a precursor to the next album's "Exit Music (For A Film). Any set of videos or throughline for this album would be too depressing to write about. Like a Lars Von Trier film. You could appreciate it once, but having the emotional energy to rewatch it would make you superhuman. Having no context, or viewing the album as a set of connected vignettes make it much more digestible and redigestable. And even though the song, as the title suggests, fades out, it does feel like something should be coming next. But I enjoy that there's nothing there but silence.